THE LOOP — Fired employees of Snarf's River North sandwich shop on Wednesday demanded they be rehired with back pay after they were unceremoniously terminated from the restaurant via an email sent three days before Christmas.
Twenty employees who worked at Snarf's River North location, at 600 W. Chicago Ave., were fired on Dec. 22 in email announcing the restaurant was closing for "renovations." The move came just weeks after many workers had protested the poor wages there and in the fast food industry in general.
"This is bigger than Snarf's, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than my coworkers," former Snarf's assistant manager Lillian Henehan, of Logan Square, said at Wednesday's protest, which was held at lunchtime outside another Snarf's location at 180 N. Stetson Ave. "Right now, this is a story about people who stand up and make their voices heard, and I want to change the narrative in this country."
The workers had earlier staged demonstrations on Dec. 23 outside both locations and demanded reinstatement and backpay. After that protest, Jim Seidel, CEO of the Colorado-based company, posted an apology on Facebook, promising that, "as a token of our apology and in the holiday spirit, we will be providing impacted employees an additional week of wages."
On Wednesday, Kevin Brown, 25, a former sandwich maker at the Chicago Avenue restaurant location, said that hasn't happened.
"They made an offer of an extra week's worth of wages, which so far nobody has seen yet," Brown said. "I'm not sure if that would apply to everybody or just the people that were scheduled to work the week that we were fired."
Brown took Snarf's leadership to task for their handling of the situation.
"We were fired via email, but we were apologized to via Facebook," Brown said. "We didn't hear directly from the owner until two days later, via email, and so far nothing since."
About 30 demonstrators at the scene held poster-sized printouts of the email that was sent to all employees of the River North shop: an eight-point list explaining that the owners were closing and remodeling the restaurant "due to increased competition and losses" — and that all employees were fired.
"At Snarf's we're focused on providing great service to our customers and a positive work environment for our employees," the email from operations director Doug Besant said.
"The store is closing effective tomorrow ... for an unknown period of time. All staff is terminated, effective Monday, December 23," the email said, before instructing employees to return keys and company property that day and reminding them that "all staff may apply for unemployment, if eligible."
The email advised employees to "keep an eye out for the grand opening of the new store" and said owners "wish you well in your new endeavors," but said nothing about re-hiring opportunities once the store re-opens.
The surprise announcement came after Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago had partnered with Snarf's employees for its Dec. 5 "Fight for 15" protest for a living wage, which asked the sandwich shop workers to walk off the job, strike, and protest outside for higher wages, committee spokesman Deivid Rojas said.
Former sandwich maker Kait Ziegler, who made $9.50 an hour at Snarf's during the two and a half years she worked at the closed location, said that during Snarf's employees' recent living wage campaign, 529 customers voiced their support, signing a petition to that effect, which she said was "ignored" by the company's management.
The fact that workers were fired shortly after the wage protest — and so close to the holidays — "smacks of retaliation," Adriana Moreno Nevarez said Wednesday, speaking on behalf of Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, who submitted a statement read at the rally.
"Employers cannot retaliate against employees who seek to better their lot by engaging in organizing activities for a decent living wage," Garcia's statement said.
Seidel issued a statement after Wednesday's demonstration asserting that Snarf's has "not taken our offer of one week severance off the table."
"The reality of the situation is the Fight for 15 movement filed action against us after we made what we thought was a fair and equitable offer and one that we were not obligated to make," Seidel said, referring to charges Rojas says workers filed against their former employer with the National Labor Relations Board.
Seidel said the group of former employees has not accepted his offer of back pay, "nor has put any reasonable demands on the table." He called the recent protests "unfounded actions against us."
"Until this is resolved, we simply cannot pay the severance and feel it is inappropriate to comment any further," Seidel's statement continued.
Company officials declined to answer questions about the protest or when the restaurant will reopen.
"We respect everyone's right to share their opinion on this matter," Seidel said in an emailed statement Wednesday.